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TV REVIEWS : Looking at Comedy, History 'seriously'


The makers of "but . . . seriously" have had the fine instinct to realize that stand-up comedians are the only class of artists with fast enough reflexes to match up with current events; the program also has the good sense to keep them at work and away from pontificating.

The result is a kind of cumulative astonishment over what's been happening in American public life over the past few decades.

"but . . . seriously" shows us the panorama of American history, from the JFK assassination through Bill Clinton's presidential acceptance speech, and juxtaposes familiar (and still sobering) clips with what comedians were saying at the time. There's no authoritative narrative, no editorial comment, no earnest interviewer eliciting pat responses. Just history and comedy rubbing up against each other raw.

The effect is not just funny, but a bit unnerving. It would be enough of a pleasure hearing once again from virtually every major comedian of the past 40 years, including Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Lily Tomlin, Jackie Mason, Dick Shawn, Robert Klein, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal and Eddie Murphy.

The older comedians are young and vibrant again--they don't fail us, the way the revisited past often does. And the younger ones are right to the point. (Eric Bogosian as an apocalyptic street beggar: "I can't change my life. You can.")

But to see them reacting to riot, racial tension, social dislocation, war and presidential malfeasance is to realize how much anger and pain is buried in our collective laughter.

One could argue that telescoping all these events together is to take them out of the context of normality. But by the end of "but . . . seriously" you can't help feeling that too much of contemporary history has been a sorry mess, and that the comics have not only been constant in pointing to it, but also invaluable in helping us get through.

* "but . . . seriously" airs at 9:40 tonight on Showtime.

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